Long Reads

What the Zoe Ball vs Sara Cox debate tells us about female representation in radio

Zoe Ball’s success comes at Sara Cox’s cost. But why isn’t there room for more than one woman on the airwaves? 

Last week, it was revealed that the successor to the throne of reigning radio king Chris Evans would be veteran broadcaster Zoe Ball. Suffice to say, reactions were mixed.

While many congratulated Ball – who has now made history twice, as the first woman to front not only the BBC Radio 2 breakfast show (the most listened-to in the UK) but also the Radio 1 equivalent, way back in 1997 – others disputed the choice. Not because of her gender but because she wasn’t woman: fellow presenter Sara Cox, who often stands in for Evans.

“Ok I don’t dislike Zoe Ball but it should have been @sarajcox,” read one tweeted reply to the announcement of Ball’s appointment, attracting 452 ‘likes’ of support. 

“I’m not against Zoe Ball,” began another tweet, which racked up 246 likes in agreement. “She’s a great presenter. I just think Sara Cox is the better choice.” 

And so on it went, with media headlines also stoking the fires of the (patently fake) feud between the two over the perceived ‘snub’. Cox herself responded to the deluge of commiserations with graceful humour. “I did get [The Breakfast Show!” she tweeted in reply to one user’s condolences. “Zoe is just filling in for the 42 weeks I’m on holiday… thanks tho x”. 

And while competition for much-coveted positions can be healthy, the implications of this incident – that Ball’s success could only come at Cox’s cost – laid bare just how few opportunities there are for women in the top tier of radio. God forbid, both could have primetime slots. Instead, one has to be shafted for the other to soar.

The pattern is one repeated across the entirety of the airwaves. This year, an Ofcom report found that women are still massively underrepresented on air, only occupying 37% of senior management roles. Although it’s more difficult to analyse, recent figures from RAJAR reveal the top 10 most listened to station in terms of reach – how many people tune in for at least five minutes per week – are:

  1. BBC Radio 2
  2. BBC Radio 4
  3. BBC Radio 1
  4. Classic FM
  5. Radio 5 Live
  6. Kiss
  7. Magic Network
  8. Magic
  9. talkSPORT
  10. Absolute Radio 

Cox defended old friend Zoë Ball from accusations of preferential treatment

Digging deeper into these stations paints a pretty poor picture. BBC Radio 2 counts 12 female regular female presenters amongst its roster – with only four of them appearing during the working week and the rest regulated to the two-day weekend. In comparison there are 23 male hosts appearing on the station. It’s a similar story at Radio 1; while there are seven female DJs in total, only three appear with regularity during the week. The rest pop up sporadically between Friday and Sunday, slots which attract typically lower audience numbers. And of the 51 years the Radio 1 Breakfast Show has been running, only two women have ever been tasked to look after it: Zoe Ball and Sara Cox.

Commercial radio doesn’t fare any better. Of the stations in the top 10, Kiss has four women presenting out of 13. talkSPORT has three out of 21. Absolute boasts six out of 22. Surprisingly it’s Magic and Classic FM who come out on top; Magic has a 50/50 split and Classic FM has a greater variety of women presenting than men – although usually an equal gender split when it comes to the daily schedule.

But why the general scarcity of female voices? And why is there a similar dearth of prime-time opportunities for the few that have broken through the white noise? 

It would be easy to assume that this is entirely due to the general restrictions that are placed upon women in media. A 2016 City University report found that while 65% of journalists who joined the media since 2013 were female, they were chronically ‘underpaid and under-promoted’, tending to become ‘stuck’ in junior management positions. While half of women who’d worked in the industry between six and 10 years were still ‘rank and file’ journalists, 64% of their male peers with the same amount of experience had been promoted.

However, women in radio have always faced that little sprinkling of extra opposition. Why? Because of their voices.

Since the beginning of broadcasting (and time), women have been penalised for their voices. In 1928, a Daily Express article stated that audiences were actively repelled by women on the radio, declaring: “Some listeners-in go so far as to say that a woman’s voice becomes monotonous after a time, that her high notes are sharp, and resemble the filing of steel, while her low notes often sound like groans.” 

A 1928 article once described female voices on the radio as “monotonous” and resembling “the filing of steel”

Things haven’t changed much: in 2014, historian and Stylist cover star Mary Beard revealed that female broadcasters are encouraged to ‘copy’ their male co-stars deeper tones in order to sound more authoritative.

“It’s not a coincidence that even on radio, the successful women presenters tend to have [an] unusually deep (i.e. male) voice,” Beard wrote in Radio Times. “The fact is that even now authority still seems to reside with the men in suits, and their deep voices.”

Former Today programme presenter Sue MacGregor agreed with Beard’s statement, stating that, although she’d never been personally requested to lower her voice for added weight, there was an understanding that naturally higher voices lacked gravitas for listeners.  

“On radio you can’t see faces and the voice is all the listener has to go on,” said MacGregor. “So you do have to be careful not to come across as high-pitched, shrill or squeaky.”

Nowadays, if you search a current female broadcaster’s name along with the voice ‘voice’ on a site like Twitter, you’ll likely come across multiple tweets complaining about the way they sound. Jo Whiley’s is ‘beige’ and ‘droning’. Zoe Ball’s way of speaking is deemed ‘stupid’ and ‘unlistenable’ in the morning, while hearing Sara Cox’s dulcet tones is deemed to be akin to ‘drilling yourself in the earholes with a pneumatic drill’, and ‘irritating.’ 

Jo Whiley’s inoffensive voice has been described as ‘droning’

But I suspect – as do many academics who’ve studied the issue – that’s because it’s not really the voice that’s the problem for most who complain. It’s the fact women are speaking on a platform at all.

And this is the crucial factor; the prevailing attitude towards women who do make it in broadcasting – as this 2015 op-ed by Lliana Bird explains  – is that they’re the ‘lucky’ to have penetrated such a space. The unsaid inference being they are fortunate because broadcasting is a male sphere and they have been kindly ‘allowed’ access.

Women report severe imposter syndrome when it comes to breaking into broadcasting. They are equipped with neither the confidence nor entitlement that allows them to take the first steps to getting on air, particularly if coming up through local radio. A BBC training day revealed that women were overwhelmingly concerned with not being able to operate production technology in cases where they would be required to self-produce, which is often the case at smaller, localised stations. 

A BBC training day revealed that women’s concerns at not being able to operate production technology was a barrier to their radio careers.

And where women shy away, men barge in, happy to fill the space. Couple that with the persistent subconscious resistance to putting women on the airwaves and you have the radio gender gap we see now on the most-listened-to UK stations. Surely, if women make up half the population, their perspectives, opinions and experiences should be heard on radio frequencies in equal volume

“It seems to be a cycle. If women don’t reach the top spot then what role models do young girls have to break the mould? Radio 2 announced the amazing news that Zoe Ball is taking over the breakfast show, it’s a step in the right direction for all women however, as we step over to the younger demographic it is still hard for women to break through,” the founders of new female-focused station Foundation FM told stylist.co.uk. 

“Residencies are going to amazing female broadcasters and DJ’s such as Tash LC and Manara, however, there seems to be little space made for women to progress on to the prime time slots - we need to hear women represented on the radio and we need to change the rhetoric. It think this will be a very exciting time in radio when women start to believe in their talent and begin to create a different sound.”

Thankfully, there is one broadcasting sphere where women are being given full autonomy to go forth and flourish: podcasting.

Of the current iTunes top 10 most popular podcasts in the UK, five are presented or co-presented by women. Two of them are exclusively geared towards a female audience (The Guilty Feminist and Pretty Big Deal with Ashley Graham).

The good news continues when looking at the full iTunes top 100 as of writing; 36% of those podcasts are presented or co-presented by a woman, compared to just 12% in April 2017. 

“It’s enormously empowering to hear women’s voices [via podcasts],” said Satu Fox, host of Fierce City: A London History Podcast in an interview earlier this year.

“The condition of woman has basically been silence for so long […] You don’t know what opinions and stories women will tell until you give them a platform, and most platforms are controlled by, and offered to, men. There are especially few platforms that are giving space to non-white women. The great thing is that no one has to give you permission to podcast, once you’ve gotten over the internalised assumption that you should not record your speaking voice and put it on the internet.”

With the confidence boost of podcasting given to a new generation of female hosts– and audience; 42% of millennials listen to at least one podcast a week – perhaps our traditional radio stations will soon find their broadcasting glass ceiling broken. And there will be space aplenty for the Zoe Balls and Sara Coxs alike to make their voices heard.

Images: Getty/Drew Patrick Miller